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August 29, 2011

Does three years in law school have "value" other than as the means to a professional degree?

The question in the title of this post keeps coming to my mind as I read posts and comments over at Inside the Law School Scam, as well as discussions at various scam-blogs in which the basic theme is that the huge debt law schools require (encourage?) students to incur is a scam because there are no (well-paying) law jobs to be found.  In this recent post, LawProf does an armchair cost/benefit assessment of the potential professional "return" on a law degree investment priced at $300K in terms of actual and opportunity costs.  Missing from the LawProf analysis (as he concedes) is any discussion of the potential "value" of law school (and of being a lawyer) other than as the means to a profession degree that could (but may not) increase one's earning power/potential.

Two subsequent posts by Law Prof with the following comments, in turn, has me really wondering about the "value" of the (expensive) modern three-year law school experience:

That law is an unhappy profession has more to do with factors that law schools can do little about...

The vast majority of law students are in no way interested in paying $150,000 for a three-year continuation of their liberal arts education.  They didn't go to law school because they wanted to go to graduate school to study law.  They went to law school (leaving aside those who are killing time because they have no real idea what they want to do) because they were presented with a barrier to entry to the practice of law that required them to go to school for three more years, period, full stop.

I know some practicing lawyers who would agree that "law is an unhappy profession," but I also know many more practicing lawyers who really like their jobs (and not merely because they make more than a living wage).  But putting aside the important question of whether law really is "an unhappy profession," this premise necessarily casts a completely different light on the "value" and vices of modern legal education.  If law practice really is an "unhappy profession," law schools would seem to justify praise for giving students as a last bit of (expensive) fun (or at least ease) before they have to enter the "unhappy" profession in the real-world.

Moreover, at the same time I seriously question the premise that "law is an unhappy profession," I also question the suggestion that most new law students know where and how they wanted to "practice law" (as opposed to just knowing they want to have a good white-collar job in a certain region).  The real "value" I see in the modern law school program is to provide a (comfortable?) space, significant time and considerable resources to enable bright young people (or second career people) to figure out just what "practicing law" might really mean for them.

Put differently, in addition to believing modern law schools provide a solid education in what I would call "advanced American civics," I also believe modern law schools provide a good opportunity for bright young people (or second career people) to find out about different ways they might make a living from being bright as a lawyer.  To me, this is especially key to the "value" of law school programs lasting three years: most think-like-a-lawyer training can be achieved during the 1L year, but the following two years provide space, time, and resources for students figure out where and how they can find a "happy" place within what for (too) many may be an "unhappy profession."

That all said, students are often paying a lot (roughly $100K if they are paying full tuition) for the opportunity to explore what law practice might mean for them over their final 2 years in law school.  Moreover, if those final two years end up further limiting a student's professional options after graduation (because of bad grades or other factors), I fully understand considerable post-graduation frustration.  

Still, I know from my own experiences that I benefited personally and professionally from having extra time in law school to figure out my own professional goals (though my concerns about the loans accrued were diminished by a decent lawyer job market in the 1990s).  And here I wanted to supplement my co-blogger's recent post on the good things about the 3L year, as well as encourage readers to share their perspectives on the "value" (and/or vices) of a relatively long modern law school program.

Posted by DAB

August 29, 2011 in Blogging by lawyers and law professors, Legal profession realities and developments, Teaching -- curriculum, The mission of law schools | Permalink

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